Maximum hot pot

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Xiang Yang Cheng, 672 Mount Alexander Road, Moonee Ponds. Phone: 9372 7128

Xiang Yang Cheng is a brand new Moonee Ponds food emporium that sells – and sells only – a singular brand of Sichuan-style hot pot.

It’s been open about a week, and as usual CTS pal Nat has done a super sleuthing job and promptly notified us of its existence, finishing with the simple plea: “When are we going?”

The answer – the only answer – of course is: “As soon as possible!”

Thus it is that Bennie and I join Nat for a most spectacular, enjoyable and tasty Good Friday dinner.

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The place itself is utterly gorgeous.

The upper beams and stonework of the original building are matched below by beautiful wooden furnishings and decorations.

Each table – and there are many, including a couple in semi-private booths – is equipped with a stovetop heater for the soups.

We’ll call what we have Sichuan-style, but the truth is we don’t quite know where the Xiang Yang Chenghuo guo” fit in terms of this apparently well-researched article at Wikipedia.

The young staff are eager to please if a little bemused with our antics, questions and rampant curiosity. But some things remain unexplained.

Including, for instance, the exact ingredients of our “double flavours” brew of “stock soup” and “spicy soup”. We can see the obvious – spring onions, garlic and so on. But there many mysterious Chinese herbs and others bits and pieces about which we’re only guessing.

No matter!

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Our twin-soup base costs $15. We find the slow-grow fire of the spicy soup is perfectly matched with the nicely salty and astringent plain stock.

From there we tick off a number of ingredients – most of which go for about $5 – for dipping into the soups of our choice.

We avoid the more confronting and peculiar (see full menu below), but take a couple of punts as well.

It takes us a little while to find the best cooking times for individual ingredients but it’s all good fun.

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Here’s how our many mixed ingredients stack up for me – the mileage of Bennie and Nat no doubt differs at least a little and maybe by a whole lot!

Frozen beef, frozen lamb: Both arrive at our table pretty as a picture and are very good – though truth to tell, I struggle to tell them apart once they have been briefly submerged and cooked.

Prawns: Average.

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Spinach, Chinese cabbage: The best of our vegetable choices, these seem to really soak up the broths superbly. Even the bigger, whiter stems of the Chinese cabbage are luscious when given enough time in the soups.

Garden chrysantheum: A fail for me – I find the stems too tough even after prolonged bathing. Bennie likes these, though.

Oyster mushroom: Quite nice, with a similar aptitude for flavour retention as the cabbage and spinach.

Potato slices: Another fail for me, though this turns out to be mostly because we don’t allow them nearly enough time. Dropped into the soups and forgotten about for a while, they shape up pretty well – a bit like the spuds in Malaysian or Vietnamese curries.

Bread sticks: Just OK for me, But – again – Bennie likes.

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For $1 or $2, we have been provided three dipping sauces – sesame oil and garlic, chopped coriander and BBQ. The first two are what they are, but the second is a puzzle – a BBQ sauce that just seems a little odd or off.

But the winner is a house sauce, provided without being requested, of fermented soy and broad  beans, chilli, garlic, spring onion, ginger, oil and peanuts.

It tastes strongly of miso to me, is granular and a little crunchy, and we all love it to bits.

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What an absolute ball we have!

Given the hit and miss aspect of our ordering, we figure we’ve done really well.

Next time, we’d probably order a little less in terms of quantity, and some more of that and less of this.

All up, our feast – including a long, tall can of papaya drink for Bennie – costs about $25 each, which we think is an outright bargain.

Even better, the very nature of the ritual involved makes for a relaxed, chatty and deeply engaged dinner experience.

We take about an hour to get ourselves full.

This could hardly be a greater contrast to Bennie’s burger experience of the previous night, in which case – for almost exactly the same admission fee – he had a meal that lasted way less than five minutes.

There may be other eateries doing this style of dining in greater Melbourne, but it’s a rarity in the west.

So we hope they do well.

It’s a unique experience that’s packed with affordable, high-quality ingredients – and it’s great for groups.

Xiang Yang Cheng on Urbanspoon

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eat.drink.westside – a fab preview

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Heaven forbid Bennie and I should ever, through sheer familiarity, take the riches that surround us for granted.

Heaven forbid, too, we should ever become blase and unappreciative of the marvellous opportunities continuing to be afforded us because we are, by now, well-established food bloggers.

A media/blogger “famil” to promote eat.drink.westside, for instance, is something we could easily blow off as it is to cover ground with which we are very familiar – in a general sense, if not specifically.

But front up we do – and have a brilliant time, seeing ‘Scray central through new eyes.

eat.drink.westside, part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, is a suite of really fine food events in and around Footscray presented by Maribyrnong City Council.

They include the famed and fabulous Rickshaw Run – for which volunteers are still being sought.

Other events include Dancing with the Tides, Malt Hops Yeast and Water, A Trio of Astrological Bites and Melbourne’s Fish Mongrels.

eat.drink.westside runs from February 28 to March 16, and further details can be discovered here.

Of course, much of the intense enjoyment of our several hours in Footscray is down to the food we eat and the people who make it that we meet along the way.

But we take much pleasure, too, from rubbing shoulders with a bunch of fellow food nuts, including a number of familiar faces and friends.

Among those we do the Footscray Boogie with are food scribe Cara Waters, Ros Grundy from Epicure, Sofia Levin of Poppet’s Window, awesome foodie-about-town Nat Stockley, Cindy and Michael from Where’s the Beef, Dan Kuseta of Milk Bar Mag, Charlene Macaulay of the Star newspaper, Benjamin Millar, my colleague at the Maribyrnong and Hobsons Bay Weekly, Claire from Melbourne Gastronome, and last but far from least Lauren Wambach of Footscray Food Blog, who does a typically top-notch job of being our guide and host.

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We start at 1+1 Mandarin Dumpling Restaurant, where Amy and Julia take us through the rudiments of making dumplings.

The restaurant’s food is based around the Xinjiang province of northern China, which has a large Muslim population, so our dumplings will be of the lamb genre. For those among us of vegetarian bent, there is a filling of cabbage, mushrooms, fried tofu and spring onions.

Amy and Julia show us how to carefully roll out the dough balls of plain four and water so there is a lump in the middle for the filling to sit on.

Gloved and aproned, we have a grand time having a go. We’d all hate to be making enough to feed a hungry family, never mind a busy restaurant!

But we do surprisingly well – mostly the results look like dumplings of a suitably rustic (ugly) variety.

Later, we boil ours up as per the instructions. They hold together really well and taste amazing!

Next stop is a few doors’ up and a real treat – a visit to the legendary T. Cavallaro & Sons.

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Here I finally get to meet Tony Cavallaro (pictured with Sarina).

We try some amaretti and – oh my! – some of the joint’s heavenly and freshly-made canoli.

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Even better, Tony takes us out back where he shows how he makes his Sicilian specialty marzipan lambs using 100-year-old plaster casts.

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On our way to inhale the heady sights, sounds and smells of Little Saigon Market, our group ambles to the sugar cane juice/iced coffee stand for beverages of choice.

Then it’s onward and up Barkly Street for our final destination – Dinknesh (Lucy) Restaurant and Bar.

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Here, Mulu has prepared a magnificent Ethiopian feast – I mean, how ridiculously, enticingly superb does this look?

As is unlike the case with many other Ethiopian eateries hereabouts, Mulu makes her own injera, which joins rice, a typically zesty and simple African salad, three pulse stews, four meat dishes and two of vegetables.

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I could be flip and say I happily content myself with a non-meat platter.

But “content” would be a lie – this is simply fabulous Ethiopian tucker.

I particularly like it when African cooks meet beetroot.

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To complete our journey, Mulu prepares traditional Ethiopian coffee – and as Bennie turns teen in a matter of days, I allow him his first serious taste of this forbidden fruit.

It’s strong, hot and sweet.

I’m horrified to note that he lustily knocks it back like pro!

Thanks for having us – we always learn something new in the west!

And it’s always a pleasure doing so.

Ignoring the bratwurst option

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Wing Loong Restaurant, 512 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. Phone: 9663 1899

This wearing a beret in the heat and the sun is getting ridiculous.

Bennie and I have scoured many of the obvious spots for a dad hat for summer to no avail.

It’s not the prices so much – although there is that – but the fact we simply can’t find one to fit.

What to do?

“Vic Market,” says he.

He’s right.

But first, lunch.

We fancy revisiting one of the popular and reliable places on the stretch of Elizabeth just south of the market – maybe this one, or this one or that one.

But they’re all packed – not a seat to be had.

So we resort to a place we suspect is frequented by many people in the same situation.

Wing Loong should be hotspot, sited as it is right opposite the market and in slightly roomier and very slightly classier premises than its Elizabeth Street neighbours.

But the meal we have is on the down side of average.

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To be fair, Bennie gets the best of it.

He really enjoys his meat-laden, tasty pork congee and cleans the bowl in swift fashion.

I’m not so lucky.

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It can be hard to define what separates a super Chinese roast-meat-and-rice plate from a drab one.

Whatever it is, my plate doesn’t have “it”.

OK rice, bok choy, quite tender but dull on-the-bone chicken are all in attendance, but lacking the spark to make my lunch in any way memorable.

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Same goes for our quartet of steamed beef dumplings.

The place has been quite busy during our stay, and perhaps there’s some real winners on the longish and reasonably-priced menu.

But maybe we shoulda gone for a stand-up bratwurst across the road.

Wing Loong Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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Superb spicy Chinese

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Hon’s Kitchen, 228 Union Road, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9041 4680

At first blush it would be easy to conclude the arrival of Hon’s Kitchen on Union Road is merely a case of one nondescript, generic noodle bar replacing another.

But a solo visit by yours truly – during which a rather fine beef noodle soup, a bit like pho but without the more pronounced seasoning in the broth, was enjoyed – has us thinking Hon’s Kitchen has hidden depths and riches.

Specifically, we have hunch that while black bean beef or sweet ‘n’ sour whatever may be the stock in trade here, careful menu selection may result in the sort of wonderful, top-class yet affordable Cantonese tucker we get from Dragon Express.

We love following our hunches – especially when they come good as spectacularly as they do tonight.

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Special combination fried rice ($9) is good. But really, considering the richnes of our other choices, we should have gone with the identically-priced vego version or just plain rice.

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Spicy chicken ($12.90) … truly superb!

Unlike versions we’ve had elsewhere that involve ribbettes and their bones, this dish is built around boneless chicken pieces deep-fried, with the resulting globules being delicious and marvellously crisp and dry.

Of course, the real prize here is the spicy, dry jumble of goodies that accompanies.

This includes three types of onion – crunchy brown fried shallots, green onion discs and slivers of fresh white onion.

It also includes two types of chilli – crunchy crushed numbers and evil-looking black-red bullets.

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Spicy eggplant ($12.90) is every bit as good and equally chilli-hit, albeit in quite a different way.

This number gets there through deep-frying the raw eggplant chunks and then whipping them into a sauce with chilli, vinegar and some tofu bits.

This dish was started from scratch for us – we saw the eggplant being peeled and chopped.

That such a fine dish resulted so quickly is some sort of magic, the eggplant itself displaying a deluxe lusciousness that beats even Japanese-style eggplant with miso or the slippery big pieces found in laksas.

Perhaps there’s been a mono-dimensional aspect to our meal – chillies rampant in both dishes, both of which have been deep-fried.

But the spiciness has been by no means close to our outer limits and both dishes have been ungreasy.

And while we suspect our selections are most likely among the least frequently ordered at Hon’s Kitchen, their outright excellence just adds weight to our belief that when it comes to Chinese food, some smart ordering at a humble suburban eatery can deliver eats every bit as great as anything to be found in your high-priced CBD palaces.

Hon's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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CTS Feast No.3: Dragon Express – so fine!

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Dragon Express, 28 City Place, Sunshine. Phone: 9312 6968

Wow, this really was a feast – course after course of splendidness issuing forth from the kitchen and a swell table of friends and followers with whom to share them.

So thanks very muchly to (from left to right) Cath, Daniel, Sian, Michael, some young whippersnapper, Klaire, Lucas, Danielle, Keri, Johnno and Sue.

Westies, each and every one of ‘em.

And thanks to our charming host, Lim, and his brother Chay, who was taking care of business in the kitchen.

We had the stir-fried green vegetables and spicy chicken ribs of our previous visits – and they were terrific.

But I liked everything, some of it a lot.

Even the sesame prawn toast – something I don’t usually enjoy overly much – tasted delicious.

Menu: Chicken sweet corn soup, mixed entree, seafood combination bird’s nest, sizzling steak, stirfried green vegetables with garlic, salt and pepper squid, spicy chicken ribs, pork ribs with Peking sauce, special fried rice.

The venue and date of CTS Feast No.4 have yet to be ascertained – stay tuned!

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A revered Melbourne joint – and now we know why

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Rose Garden BBQ Shop, 435 Elizabeth St, Melbourne. Phone: 9329 156

A business meeting in Flinders Lane finds us parking at Victoria Market and ambling along Elizabeth St checking out potential lunch spots for our return journey.

Meeting over, we are in plenty of time to avoid the notorious peak-hour rush at Rose Garden BBQ Shop – but only just.

By the time we split, the queue thing is happening.

But the truth is this place is run so efficiently, the turnover so high, that I doubt wait times ever get out of hand.

That’s just one reason we fall instantly in love with this place.

We’ve walked past it a gazillion times, yet this is our first visit.

Now we know why it’s so popular.

We love the signs on the wall, the menu that has far more depth than the BBQ meats with rice or noodles that the name implies, the service that is no-fuss without being brusque, the fact they have Top 10 menu list.

And we love the look of just about every single dish we see being served or consumed around us.

And, of course, the price is right.

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Despite the menu being more wide-ranging than we have been expecting, there are only a couple of snack-type appestisers.

Our fried wontons ($5) are fine.

The porky fillings are regulation but we really dig the light batter that seems to have quite a pronounced eggy factor.

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From the Top 10 list, Bennie chooses spicy cumin beef on rice ($9.50), which is excellent.

It’s oily but not off-puttingly so.

The plentiful beef is tender and delicious, no doubt due to MSG – but we don’t care.

The crunchy onion strands add texture and – best of all – the cumin seasoning is all the more fabulous for being quite restrained.

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As you can see, the broth in my soya chicken/roast pork soup noodles ($10.80) is quite oily, but it has good if not great flavour – and certainly it’s better than that experienced at Supper Inn a few days previously in a similar dish.

I had been intending to order my roast meats with rice, a little concerned how I was going negotiate the boning of the bird bits in the soup context.

But my absentminded ordering of the soup rendition proves no problem, for the meats are very, very good.

The roast pork is fat-free and without gristle of any kind, though I know full well that such can be just a matter of luck and timing.

The soya chicken is equally tender and gorgeous, with the meat falling easily from the bones.

Wow – what a great-tasting Melbourne cheap eats joint this is, and surely it’s the standout of a stretch of Elizabeth St crammed with eating options.

Excitingly, in terms of the long menu, we’ve only just begun.

See the review by Asian Restaurants In Melbourne here.

Rose Garden BBQ on Urbanspoon

Consider The Sauce Feast No.3: Dragon Express

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PLEASE NOT: THIS DINNER IS NOW FULLY SUBSCRIBED!

It may seem that having a mid-week lunch at Dragon Express in Sunshine that exactly duplicates our first meal therestir-fried green vegetables and spicy chicken ribs – is a bit on the predictable side.

It’s all Bennie’s idea, but it’s one I’m happy to go along with for the simple, perfect reason they’re very good.

It’s also Bennie’s idea that Dragon Express be approached to co-host the third Consider The Sauce Feast – and that’s another one to which I’m happy to assent.

We like the joint’s food a bunch and I’m confident a smart operator like proprietor Lim will see the PR and goodwill advantages in having a big tableful of western suburbs food hounds chowing down at a blog-hosted dinner, even if it does cost him in the form of providing food at no cost to the guests.

And so he does – and so the third Consider The Sauce Feast will be at Dragon Express on Tuesday, October 15, from 7.30pm.

There’s no surprise, either, in the fact the two aforementioned dishes will be on the menu, along with several more.

And I’m happy the focus will be on Cantonese food, rather than the restaurant’s offerings derived from other parts of Asia.

Sometimes Cantonese cooking isn’t all you need – it’s exactly what you need.

In this regard, Dragon Express strikes what seems to us a fine balance … Cantonese food every bit as good as or even better than more high-falutin’ places at prices similar to those of the most humble Chinese takeaway joints.

There are some guidelines I choose to lay down, but even on this Lim and I understand each other well – so much so that he finishes my sentence for me …

Says I: “Now look here, Lim, we don’t want to be having none of your sweet and sour pork or lemon chicken …”

Lim continues: ” … or black bean sauce!”

Here are the rules:

  • No restrictions this time around on those who have attended previous CTS dinners.  
  • First in, first served.
  • There are 10 places only available.
  • Fellow food bloggers welcome to apply but they will not be given preference.
  • No more than two places to be claimed by any applicant, though “singles” will also be accepted.
  • There will be no charge for our food but guests will be expected to pay for their own drinks.

To grab your place, send me an email telling me whether you want one or to places. The address is elsewhere on this site. Applying by commenting on this post will not work.

Consider The Sauce Feast No.3:

Dragon Express, 28 City Place, Sunshine. Phone: 9312 6968

Tuesday, October 15, from 7.30pm.

Chicken sweet corn soup

Mixed entree

Seafood combination bird’s nest

Sizzling steak

Stirfried green vegetables with garlic

Salt and pepper squid

Spicy chicken ribs

Pork ribs with Peking sauce

Special fried rice

Book ends for an Indiana Jones marathon

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Hooked, 172 Chapel St, Windsor. Phone: 9529 1075

Supper Inn, 15 Celestial Ave, Melbourne. Phone: 9663 4759

It’s halfway through the school holidays, it’s grand final day and we’re feeling exuberant and a little bit mad.

We’d sort of planned on watching almost all of the footy before hitting the road to St Kilda and the Astor Theatre for a 5pm start.

But we find the whole thing so pitifully boring, so we head out heaps early.

And, naturally enough, there’s little traffic to speak of, so we have plenty of time to wander down Chapel St eyeballing a vibrant part of town we rarely visit these days.

The bonus time factor likewise settles the dilemma of whether to eat before or after our three-movie marathon.

We finally settle on the specialist and classy Hooked fish and chippery, of which there is also a branch in Fitzroy. I’ve eaten here before, but Bennie hasn’t.

We’re expecting excellence of the same kind we regularly experience at Ebi in West Footscray.

That’s what we get, too, though at first we are somewhat taken aback at what seems like rather tight-fisted serves of both our fishy protagonists and chips.

But once we remind ourselves that we’re having the daily lunch box special for $10.95 with salad extra for $2, we devour our early dinners with much enjoyment and consider them good value.

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Bennie’s crumbed calamari is right up there with best I’ve had – grease-free, both fresh and nicely chewy, beautifully seasoned.

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My two pieces of blue grenadier are more substantial than they appear, deliciously tender and superbly cooked.

In both our cases, the chips are very fine and the Asian-influenced salad with pickled ginger does OK – so actually is way better than the usual salad components found at fish and chip joints.

The most lovely surprise of our meal comes in the form of a punnet of one of the sauces available for 95 cents.

“Sambol” is unlike anything sambol we’ve ever experienced before.

It’s actually far more like the sort of oiled and gingery mash usually served with Hainan chicken rice.

With deep-fried seafood and potatoes?

It really works!

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Booking a couple of tickets for the Astor’s Indiana Jones marathon was inspired by examination earlier in the week of the lacklustre school holiday movie fare on offer.

It’s a winning move and we have a ball.

We see three cracking good flicks for $20 in a gorgeous old theatre, sharing the experience with a happy, slightly geeky crowd that claps and cheers before and after each movie, during the more preposterous scenes and at some of the more crack-up lines.

There’s at least half a dozen cats dressed up as Indi, and one group with an Esky stuffed with food.

During the first interval, we see one bloke tucking into a can of Jim Beam & Coke AND a mighty slice of chocolate cake. At the next break, we spy the same dude wielding a packet of Malteasers.

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We’d seen Raiders Of The Lost Ark at the same venue about a year before, so it holds little surprise for us.

I haven’t seen the next two since the time of their original releases and have little recall of the storylines, so lap them up with glee.

Temple Of Doom seems to suffer, to my mind, from a lack of exotic locations.

From a foodie point of view, however, it does boast a couple of brilliant barbecue scenes.

The Last Crusade is more upbeat, goofy and rollicking, with Sean Connery a real cool addition.

Across the three movies, we spy two stunts that have received the Mythbusters treatment, though there may well have been others.

Given the slightly late start and the breaks between flicks, it’s after midnight before it’s all over, so the early dinner has turned out to be just the right move.

But now, of course, we’re up for supper. Bennie wants to have his first ever crack at congee, so off we go down St Kilda Rd and into the CBD, where we find a park easily.

Supper Inn is a late-night Melbourne institution, though my one meal here was so long ago as to leave me completely bereft of any detailed recollection.

No matter – it seems like the perfect place to continue what has already been an awesome day in the life of Consider The Sauce.

The restaurant is bustling and doing brisk business. The dowdy decor doubtless hasn’t changed in decades.

Most of the punters do as we do and roll their eyes and grimace as a series of rowdy (drunk) Hawthorn fans periodically spark up with tuneless renditions of their club’s theme song.

Footy club theme songs being perhaps even more loathed in our home than the dreaded Christian Music …

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I’m knocked out and proud as all get out that Bennie’s wanting to try congee for the first time – and that he orders the preserved duck egg with pork rendition ($7.50).

Even better, he slurps the lot up with glee. It tastes pretty good to me, too!

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By comparison, my rice noodle soup with roast pork is a dud.

I appreciate the wealth of bok choy and the pork is equally plentiful, on the sweetish side and rather good and meaty.

But overall, my supper is bland – and, at $16, it’s at least $5 more pricey than we’d normally expect to pay for such a dish.

Should there be another late-night out for us – and on the basis of this one, it appears that is certain be the case – we’ll likely head for another late-night joint, China Bar, around the corner.

There, should we wish to do so, we’ll be able to have a better quality version of the same soup noodle dish at a more modest price, and probably better food overall – or at least more in line with our tastes.

Still, we’ve fully experienced two grand Melbourne traditions in a single day – a movie marathon at the Astor and a post-midnight feed at the Supper Inn.

Happy sighs punctuate our drive home.

Hooked on Urbanspoon

Supper Inn on Urbanspoon

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Best food at Highpoint? We think so …

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Dumplings Plus, Level 2, Shop 2518, 120-200 Rosamond Rd, Maribyrnong. Phone: 9318 4933

It’s only a shopping centre, but Highpoint has its strengths.

Today one of them becomes very apparent to me.

I am wrangling two lively boys for the next six hours or so, and the weather radar tells me the likes of fresh-air frolics at Point Cook Homestead or Altona Beach are simply not going to be workable let alone enjoyable.

So off we go to the Great Maribyrnong Retail Shrine On The Hill – where there may be a school holiday cast of thousands but where we will be dry and warm.

Some fruit & veg shopping, checking out the book and games shops, lunch at Dumplings Plus … a perfectly acceptable and pleasurable way to fill a few hours.

Since our first visit, we’ve being hearing mixed reports about the new dumpling joint in the new food court section of the centre.

Truth is, we’ve had a few ups and downs ourselves.

We earnestly suggest, for instance, that if you’re looking for laksa that you’d be well advised to look elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Bennie and I have lucked upon some fine dishes on separate visits – me, solo, and beef brisket soup; Bennie with his mum and their dumplings with chilli.

So we’re intent on trying both again and comparing notes in the company of Bennie’s school buddy.

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My earlier encounter with beef brisket soup ($9.80) had involved an incredibly deeply and lustily flavoured broth and heaps of dark, well-cooked and virtually fat-free meat.

Today’s outing seems rather anemic by comparison but is still quite respectable.

So it goes with dishes – bo kho is another – that vary depending on the freshness or otherwise of a particular batch. And with freshness not always being a good thing.

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Our dozen steamed dumplings ($9.80) come as half pork, half vegetable, not that we can tell the difference – it’s a lottery!

But both kinds are good in a chewy, rustic way.

I am bemused, though, by the sauce in which they swim.

This seems way more about soy and hardly at all about chilli, with only the mildest of spice kicks detectable on about every third mouthful.

So even on a good day, it seems, Highpoint’s Dumplings Plus can be a hit and miss proposition.

But it’s still, for us, the best eats to be had there.

Although we are aware that for many folks, that’s no sort of marker at all.

Management may like to revisit its seating policy.

As we arrived and ordered at the front counter, a group of three women were “reserving” a table each as they awaited friends.

When we left a half an hour later – and having eaten our lunch with three of us crammed onto one of the tiny, exterior two-seater tables – only one of their pals had arrived and they appeared to be a long way short of ordering, never mind actually eating.

At such a popular eating spot with no lack of customers and extremely high turnover, this seems a bit rich.

Perversely, we drive home in bright sunshine.

So very Melbourne!

Dumplings Plus on Urbanspoon

Consider The Sauce goes ape … but the monkey doesn’t sing

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crazy9

Crazy Wings, 177 Russell Street, Melbourne. Phone: 9663 6555

Brunetti, 214 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Phone: 9663 8085

Career has become a very relative term in our household.

Plain old work is probably a better way of putting it.

And, financial imperatives aside, lack of work presents its own joys, space and opportunities to further pursue what I now see as my “real career”, that being principally father and blogger.

Still, a work situation that has very suddenly gone to three and now four days a week is cause for relief and celebration; it’s a situation that could last for a month or maybe the rest of the year.

But it means the “real career” pursuits can continue.

It means a multi-hundreds electricity bill will not cause an anxiety meltdown.

It means the car will be serviced.

And, yes, it’s worthy of celebration.

Truth is, though, we wouldn’t be heading for this Friday night’s King Kong at the Regent had I not snagged a couple of very excellent but full-price stalls seats.

So off we go … heavy traffic negotiated with ease, $7 parking sorted, we have plenty of time to wander further into the CBD than we expected.

We pass many eating places as we amble without feeling inclined to rise to their various baits.

And then we’re in Russell Street and there it is, the famous – perhaps notorious is a better word – Crazy Wings.

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It seems like a typical, busy low-price Chinatown joint except the air is headily perfumed with barbecue aromas, cumin to the fore.

We are pointed to a table and proceed to familiarise ourselves with the ordering process, which entails ticking off items on a long list resembling a yum cha sheet that is then taken for processing/cooking by the staff.

We play a straight bat to the many items of an exotic (for us) or weird nature, and studiously avoid the eponymous crazy wings.

And then the fun begins.

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A double serve of the standard original taste wing ($2 per skewer) turns into a double double serve as it’s the Friday special, and we’re really happy about that.

They’re marvellous, tender and redolent with – yes – cumin.

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Likewise for the lamb meat skewers ($1.50 each) … but then things start getting a little screwy.

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Ox tongue ($2 each) has the sort of silky tenderness I’ve been expecting but there’s something almost, um, petrochemical about the seasoning.

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As we move into our vegetable selections, including BBQ eggplant ($2.50, above), we are starting to weary some of the sameness in the seasonings.

And as with all our subsequent non-meat skewers – cucumber ($2.50), enoki mushrooms ($4.50) and even honey BBQ steamed bread $1.50) – there seems, to us, to be a disconnect between what’s threaded on the skewers and what’s been used for seasoning.

There doesn’t seem to be any cohesion and not much point. We’d prefer a salad.

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The same holds true for chewy and enjoyable BBQ squid ($1.50).

Still we ARE having a ball.

We love the vibe.

We love the way the many orders are hustled by the staff from kitchen to tables not on platters but as fistfuls of smoking skewers. At the tables, they are placed on wooden trays and right on top of already discarded skewers.

As with every other table, our wooden tray starts to resemble a greasy, charred game of pickup sticks or a mini-bonfire in the making.

We’re having such a good time, we get a bit reckless and order more – including a serve of the crazy wings.

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Whatever our issues or bemusement with our food up to this point, they are instantly rendered small fry, for this is where we part company with the Crazy Wings’ ethos completely and forever.

Bennie and I eat no more than the equivalent of a teaspoon each.

In more than three decades of eating spicy food, this is the hottest food I’ve ever tried – by a very, very wide margin.

And there’s no slow burn here – the heat is virtually instant, as is the unpleasant burning of lips and mouth.

Worse, the little we do eat is not just spicy but tastes plain bad – metallic, nasty, industrial.

Hard as we find it to figure, we suppose there may be people who may enjoy such ridiculously seasoned food.

But for us, there seems nothing macho or admirable about doing so.

It just seems a waste – of food, effort, money and appetite.

As well, I wonder about the health aspects of such insanity – for older and younger people in particular. Could there be allergy issues at play here as well?

Should we return to Crazy Wings, we’ll play it even straighter, stick with the plain meats and seafood, and maybe go for some of the handful of rice or noodle dishes.

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So well organised are we that we have ample time for lovely, leisurely coffee, hot chocolate, pistachio biscotti and chocolate panzarotti at Brunetti’s in the city square.

The CBD branch seems to divide opinions just the way the Lygon Street HQ does, but we like it.

We feel relaxed and comfortable – and even warm on a cold night, thanks to the outdoor heaters.

And King Kong?

Well musical theatre is never going to be my fave thing, but there’s a brilliant light show, loud music, lots of dancing, generous nods to Broadway tradition … but not, to my mind, much by way of genuine emotion or soul.

Still, as Bennie’s first such experience, and as part of a swell boys’ night out in the CBD, it could hardly be bettered.

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Hell, yes – dumplings and more at Highpoint

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Dumplings Plus, Level 2, Highpoint

Context is everything …

As Bennie points out, the food we’re enjoying at Dumplings Plus is not necessarily the best Asian tucker we’ve had, but … within the context of Highpoint, it’s nothing short of a sensation.

We’re pretty cool with the whole ambiance of the new additions to Highpoint, particularly when contrasted with the drabness one of us is experiencing at Airport West.

What we have been missing is somewhere to eat in the new food precinct that really sets our hearts thrumming.

Dumplings Plus is it.

While pursuing arts of the martial variety in the city, we’d visited the Swanston St Dumplings Plus several times, so know what to expect in our own backyard.

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We are less certain about the wisdom of fronting up for a feed on a Sunday bang on lunch time.

For sure, it’s busy – this is the place’s fourth day and the honeymoon is definitely on.

The queue for takeaway is never less than 10 deep. There’s waiting time, too, for tables – many of them communal – but so great is the turnover that no one seems to be waiting for more than a few minutes to be seated.

Waiting time for food is a different matter, though no problem.

Several of the dumpling options we attempt to order have sold out, and we’re told 10,000 of those we do order had been sold the previous day.

The staff members are coping well, with smiles all round.

Being of keen appetite, we order a couple of starters from the takeaway display to get things moving with immediacy.

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Big vegetable curry puffs ($2.50) are superb, with wonderfully rich flaky pastry encasing a mildly spiced potato-based mix.

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Sichuan pork noodles are “nice”, opines Bennie.

Heck, I reckon they’re better than that.

I’m unsure if the noodles are hand-made in-house – they seem to be devoid of the irregularities of the strands we enjoyed at the CBD branch – but it doesn’t matter a bit.

Combined with a spicy broth that has enough heat for dad and not too much for lad, there’s green onion, bok choy, pork mince and lots of chopped black Sichuan pickles.

The whole dish has a marvellous and deep smokiness.

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Pan-fried pork dumplings ($11.80 for 10) are showing the effects of the restaurant’s fever pitch activity and high turnover – but only in a real nice, rustic way. Disappointingly, like our curry puffs they come served on plastic.

They’re blazing hot on arrival, with bottoms that are both crisped and chewy, tops that are just chewy alone and nice innards of porky mince.

It’s obvious Highpoint’s Dumplings Plus is an immediate hit – like everyone around us, we’ve had a swell time.

And it’s beyond doubt we’ll be back soon.

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No.1 and No.135

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Westar, 82C Ashley St, West Footscray. Phone: 9689 8182

There’s at least a couple of Chinese places that do home delivery that are closer to our Yarraville pad than Westar.

But they’re significantly more expensive.

There’s other sorts of food can be likewise had, but it’s either equally pricey or pizza – and we reckon pizza travels no better than fish and chips.

Accordingly, the popularity of home-delivered pizza remains a mystery to us.

Westar, by comparison, has a minimum order of $12 and a delivery fee of $2.

Bargain!

And it means it’s viable exercise for a meal-for-one when the mood strikes.

The CTS ethos essentially dictates food should be eaten where it is cooked, and that takeaway or home delivery should be avoided.

So this is rare indulgence.

Of course, we don’t dig the plastic containers – but these will be washed and used for soup ‘n’ stews bound for the freezer.

Westar food is nothing special, but it is reliable and the delivery guys are always smiling and have the right change.

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My spring rolls ($2 for two) are hot enough, but even after taking the travel time into account, they’re disappointingly chewy, though quite tasty.

Next time I’ll stick to No.3 – fried won tons.

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Home-delivered or takeaway noodle dishes tend to mold themselves into the shape of their plastic receptacles – and that’s certainly the case with my beef “hot fun” ($8.50).

But once I’ve stirred and loosened things up with my chopsticks, this is fine and just right for the night.

Inevitably, the vegetables have lost that wokky crispness during their journey from West Footscray to Yarraville – but there’s heaps of them: onion, carrot, zucchini, broccoli, bok choy.

But there seems to be even more beef than all the vegies combined – it’s tender if a bit tasteless.

MSG?

Oodles of it.

We’ve only stepped inside Wessar once – on one hot afternoon in order to pick a new menu.

The staff seemed as surprised to see us as we were by the single-table gloom of the place.

I’m guessing 99.99 per cent of their business is takeaway or home delivery.

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Sun Mei – still mostly a takeaway joint …

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Sun Mei, 83 Charles St, Seddon. Phone: 9687 0680

Despite our many years in the neighbourhood, Sun Mei has never tempted us.

On the rare occasions we indulge in the Chinese delivered route, we go with a more distant but significantly cheaper outlet.

Eating out?

We keep on motoring to Footscray central or further afield.

Or if we stop in Seddon, there are other more alluring options – especially in more recent times.

But about a year, Sun Mei got a new look, some paint and quite a different vibe, with white-coated cooks energetically presiding over the woks in theatrical style every time we pass by at night-time.

So it is that I finally succumb to curiosity.

And discover, in the process, that Sun Mei remains fundamentally a take-away joint, despite the makeover.

But I agree with Consider The Sauce buddy James’ comment that with a little effort it could be so much more, as the food is “above-average” for its kind.

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It’s very busy, even this early in the week. Locals are popping in with regularity, while the in-house delivery drivers comes and goes several times while I am in the house.

Eat-in facilities are minimal – a long wall shelf with stools opposite the wonderfully open kitchen and servery, and a small table in the window, at which I perch.

Two dim sims ($2.80 on the takeaway menu) are rather unglamourosuly served to me in a plastic takeaway container.

Who cares?

They’re mighty – tender, big, juicy, slightly peppery, all-round delicious and hearty on a chilly night.

Forget the legendary and over-rated South Melbourne Market dimmies – these here are the biz!

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As could be expected, my kueh teow ($13) is significantly different from what would be served in a Malaysian restaurant.

The rather finely chopped pork and tiny shrimp come almost certainly from the same ingredient containers that are used in producing Sun Mei’s fried rice.

There’s no fish cake, egg, fat prawns, Chinese sausage or fresh chilli, with dried chilli flakes used instead.

But, golly, it’s crackingly good – notably unoily for this dish yet still evincing plenty of “wok hei” flavour.

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Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant

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Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant, 118 Hopkins St Footscray. Phone: 9687 8488

We’ve had some indifferent experiences at this Footscray institution.

Not so much with the food, which we’ve mostly found good and even – sometimes – excellent.

It’s had more to do with the service.

Service so brutally indifferent it has seen us depart without even ordering on a couple of occasions in the past couple of years.

Service that has felt like a slap in the face.

But Footscray is not richly endowed when it comes to Chinese roast meats, and sometimes nothing else will do.

So I’m happy to give this HK joint another go.

Maybe it’s all in the timing.

For today the place is pretty much deserted – just one other booth occupied, but with a bunch of folks coming, going and in takeaway mode.

I am served with the usual brusqueness, but by someone who injects a little humour and warmth into my experience when the pen she is using fails.

She later slaps down the top of my tea thermos with the admonishment: “Keep closed, tea stay hot!”

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My two-meat combo of soya chicken and roast pork with soup/noodles ($10) is good, but I’ve had much better here and elsewhere.

The chicken is terrific, tender and flavoursome, with the meat not dauntingly attached to the bones.

The pork is on the fatty side. It always is, but this is more so than usual.

The noodles tend to stick together in a bothersome ball.

The broth is sadly short of hot. It’s salty, too, but I like that.

It’s probably also larded with MSG, but I don’t mind that. I’m not one of those people who can automatically tell one way or the other.

One large bulb of bok choy provides greenery and the feel-good factor. I could do without it.

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China Red

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China Red, Shop 6, 206 Bourke St, Melbourne. Phone: 9662 3688

The price of a movie adventure at your normal suburban screening seems preposterous to me.

I know not whether it’s pure gouging, high shopping centre rents, excessive licensing fees, a combination of all these factors, or some or none of them at all, but we tend to keep our movie outings down to one or two a year.

It helps, I guess, that we have pay TV and that Bennie is rapidly evolving into the same kind of book nut his dad has always been.

But we’re always on the lookout for a bargain movie experience.

Over the years, that has seen us pay many, many visits to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Federation Square.

We’ve seen bunches of obscure, exotic and bizarre cartoons there. We’ve seen all sorts of full-length movies. We’ve seen free previews of films soon to be released in to commercial cinemas.

It’s worth the journey and the usual $8 parking fee. And besides, with a little dutiful sleuthing it can and does provide a broader cinematic experience than the sometimes dreary parade of cookie-cutter CGI animation outings generally available.

So … a new Studio Ghibli flick for $6 each as an Easter weekend treat?

Oh, yes please!

Where not so long ago visits to the CBD to play – and eat – were once a frequent occurrence, these days they are rare indeed .

So we make sure we leave in plenty of time to grab our tickets and head to Chinatown for a feed.

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We choose China Red pretty much at random – price is a factor, but so are speed and a desire for something sexy and spicy.

Before entering, we have no idea the place has been so widely blogged, reviewed and discussed.

Mind you, a lot of those comments centre on the novelty of the restaurant’s touch-screen ordering system. And a lot of them seem to reflect our experience of an acceptable meal that is nothing to really rave about.

The “background” spiel at the eatery’s website is practically useless is describing the joint’s food. It seems to be a mixture of northern Chinese dishes.

The touch-screen menu is long and we have fun choosing our meal.

Bennie has never done this before, but of course is already an expert.

The service is Chinatown efficient but not particularly friendly.

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Fried calamari dusted with cumin powder (failed to find this on the online menu but I think it was about $7) is pretty good.

The calamari is just the right kind of chewy, not too oily and the seasoning is fine.

Bennie likes it a lot, but I’m less impressed. For the two of us, the serve seems a tad overbearing – less of it and smaller pieces would suit me better.

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The Shanghai shao long bao ($11.80 for eight) are superb.

Not that we have a lot of experience with these famed dumplings – we’ve not tried some of the more famous examples around town.

But these are certainly superior to the ones we used to get at a certain Russell St establishment.

The pastry is lighter, the soup inside is hot without being scalding, the delicate but meaty filling has a whiff of ginger about it and every single dumpling is an exquisite flavour grenade.

We order China Red special hand-made noodles ($12.80, top photo) on the basis that it looks like a nice dish to share.

And so it is.

There’s two medium prawns in their shells, broccoli, enoki mushrooms, slices of beef and pork (with quite a lot of gristle involved) and the slurp-worthy noodles.

The soup broth is milky, quite sweet and made – we are told – from pork and chicken among other things.

I’m stoked to see Bennie knocking back fungus for the first time ever, but we are both bemused by our soup noodle dish – the dull whole seems considerably less than the sum of the perfectly fine parts.

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Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen

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Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen, 311 Racecourse Rd, Flemington. Phone: 9372 5218

Entering Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen for a Sunday feast, we wonder why it’s taken so long for us to visit.

After all, this establishment has been around for a while now and, heck, we’ve tried just about every other eatery in the Racecourse Rd/Pin Oak Crescent vicinity.

No matter – we’re in the house now and up for dumplings and whatever else may eventuate.

In the days before Consider The Sauce, these premises were actually a regular for us in the form of a pretty good Malaysian/Chinese place called The Big Chopstix, which was followed by another rather nondescript Chinese joint and then (as far as I know) by the current Szechuan emporium.

The new look for the new business is rather wonderful, with all the bits and pieces finding a harmony that is unusual for this neighbourhood and the kinds of places we gravitate towards in general.

Lovely, heavy wooden tables of the rustic variety, overtly plump chairs, wall coverings and table adornments all work together.

We are handed two menus – one is a lavish affair with stacks of great photos of a dizzying array of dishes; the other is a more rudimentary single page of noodles, rice dishes, dumplings and a few others bits and pieces.

Reading the main menu is a drool-inducing experience.

There’s a lot of food here that we will find a little challenging on future visits – there’s a lot of offal, for starters.

But there’s also a lot of amazing looking dishes featuring ingredients we are more familiar with done in ways we’ve never before encountered – even in our previous experiences with Szechuan food, as limited as that is.

But on the basis of the two simple dishes we order for our lunch, future visits will definitely happen, and soon at that – they are truly fantastic.

We split our order, after conferring with the friendly waitress, between the two menus.

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Pan-fired chicken and prawn dumplings ($8.80) are superb – and illustrate vividly the folly we quite often commit by ordering dumplings of various sorts at places that don’t specialise in them.

These are a cut above the rest.

The upper pastry is soft and unchewy, the bottoms agreeably crunchy and the fillings – with the chicken meat stuffed into the inner curve of the prawn meat – of high and delicious quality, perfumed with just the right amount of ginger.

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Our second dish comes from the main menu – smoked pork spare ribs ($18.80).

It’s mind-blowingly good.

The meat comes away from the bones easily and is wonderfully tender. There are a few stray, tiny and dangerous bone pieces, though, for those looking to protect their dental investment.

Just as good as the ribs themselves is the accompanying mix of chillies slices, crushed and whole peanuts, green onion slices and no doubt a whole lot more.

This is quite similar to the spice mix we often get when ordering spicy chicken ribs elsewhere, but this is better – deeper, richer, more complex.

In her review, Ms Baklover says a lot of the food here is covered in a chilli-and-cumin blend, so that could be what’s at play here as well.

In any case, it’s all superb, with a quite high level of heat that is of the wonderful slow burn variety.

Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen – what took us so long?

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Minh’s Vietnamese & Chinese

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Minh’s Vietnamese & Chinese, 41 Puckle St, Moonee Ponds. Phone: 9326 2228

My chicken coleslaw is all wrong.

Or rather, it seems all wrong.

The key component is iceberg lettuce. Or maybe it’s very finely chopped and extremely unfibrous savoy cabbage. Truth to tell, I cannot tell.

The chicken – an entire thigh, I think – has been grabbed from the bain marie chook section that looks like it contains the regulation chicken shop variety.

But appearances are most certainly deceiving in this case.

True, my salad lacks the tangy, lemony zip I am familiar with when ordering this dish from the Vietnamese eateries of Footscray. There’s no fresh chilli slices either, with some level of spice heat contributed by the sticky jam on the side.

But the flavours, while on the mildish side, meld together really well.

And the textures are full of crunch, too, with plenty of chopped peanuts, fried shallots, cucumber, carrot and more doing a swell job.

The modest looking chook is outstanding – it’s of supreme tastiness in the Asian style and there’s a heaps of it.

My small serve for $12 – there’s large available for $12 – is a great light lunch.

Minh’s is a small but often busy humble lunch spot on Puckle St, right next door to Chiba Sushi Bar.

Its goodies – displayed on a big photo spread on one wall and behind the counter – range across a surprisingly wide Vietnamese territory, from pho and rice and spring rolls, through to more generic Asian fare such as Singapore fried noodles.

If any of those dishes match the simple panache of my coleslaw, it could be that Minh’s is an easy-to-miss treasure in an area where it often seems classy exotica and spiciness are hard to find and the lines between good, OK and mediocre are blurred.

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Hong Kong Noodle Bar

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Hong Kong Noodle Bar, 306 Main Rd E, St Albans. Phone: 9367 2525

Hong Kong Noodle Bar has a very similar name and look to a very similar establishment in Footscray – could be they’re even related in some way.

We’ve generally found the Footscray version to be of such haphazard service levels that we stay away.

But that’s not the reason we’ve taken so long to check out the one in St Albans.

That has had more to do with more alluring options around the corner in Alfrieda St.

For this lunchtime, though, none of them appeal … and even the banh mi places are all a-jostle.

So in I go … and end up very happy that I have done so.

For this seems like an everyday eats joint of quite some excellence.

The basic vibe is Chinese-style BBQ meats, with the roast beasties hanging in the window, the comforting chopping sound that can elicit pavlovian drool and – at one end of the kitchen – a handsome, large and rotund oven that indicates the roasting is done in-house.

Although double-banger rice or soup noodle plates are not on the menu, I have little trouble in arranging a soup bowl with both soya chicken and BBQ pork.

I love the way the sediments from the roast meats flavours the broth.

I don’t ever remember having this sort of soup bowl with anything other than squiggly, commercial egg noodles. I’m not sure I’d like it if I did.

Same goes with the MSG. Fine by me … for eating out. Does anyone use MSG at home?

There’s a good supply of bok choy.

As for the meats …

The chicken seems to be almost all breast meat, and thus a little on the dry side but blessedly free of bones.

The pork is sinfully rich, fatty and delicious.

It’s a cracking lunch for $8.

Honk Kong Noodle Bar flirts with a few dishes of Thai or Malaysian derivation, but I reckon tried and true is the go here.

Indeed, some of the rice plates I see around me look both fine and big, with bells and whistles – small bowls of soup and fresh chilli slices – that are not always the norm.

I wish we had one in our immediate neighbourhood.

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Vy Vy

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Vy Vy, 318 Racecourse Rd, Flemington. Phone: 9372 1426

THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED.

The exterior signage says: “Vietnamese, Chinese & Malaysian Cuisine.”

But the internal furniture and fittings give the game – if that’s what it is – away.

This is a Flemington favourite with a Chinese lineage that attempts dishes from other Asian traditions.

And mostly, we’ve found over the years, it does an excellent job – so much so that for us and many regulars, it is preferable for Malaysian food to its far more lauded neighbours around the corner in Pin Oak Crescent or just up the road, or even right next door.

Oddly, for this mid-week dinner, that proves not to be the case – what we get are good plates and bowls that are nonetheless full of food that is only loosely Malaysian as filtered through a Chinese kitchen.

But tonight we care not a whit for authenticity.

It’s cold, we’re hungry, football practice has been long of duration.

Even more auspiciously, just as we’re about to order, a supreme example of humanity enters the restaurant to hand me the $20 note I’d left dangling out of the ATM across the road.

We salute you, Sir!

Our shared lobak ($5) has none of the usual vegetable texture from the likes of carrot.

This is just about all pork of a sublimely chewy kind and, as always, we love the crunchy, crispy tofu outer.

This is a very meaty entree!

Bennie is absolutely adamant – in the face of advice based on infinite wisdom from his dad – that he wants to order the satay fried beef noodles.

Thankfully, our bubbly waitress, Tiffany, talks him out of such a course on the basis of high levels of spiciness.

Instead, he gets hokkien fried noodles ($11.50), which goes down a treat – its array protein keeps the lad happy, while the profusion of greenery mollifies his father.

He rates it a high 8.5 out of 10, but it’s very much a toned-down version of the Malaysian hokkien mee – less dark, less lusty, just less.

Much the same could be said of my beef curry with noodles ($10).

The menu describes the curry as “rendang”, and such has been the case on previous visits.

But not this time – there’s no coconut to speak of and the gravy is soup, and a pretty runny one at that.

The meat is good, but a little on the fatty/gristly side. And I wish I’d gotten hokkien noodles instead of the rather dreary egg noodles I get.

But – surprisingly – the dish as a whole kicks goals.

I love the high chilli levels and plentiful amount of bok choy.

Certainly a curry bowl in which the sum is greater than the parts.

We’ve been here too often to be even slightly deterred by an oddly “un”-Malaysian experience.

As she shows us before and after photographs of her splendid work as a make-up artist, Tiffany tells us that the family business was one of the very first Racecourse Rd eateries.

They’ve been in the current premises for more than 10 years and before that inhabited the building a couple of doors down that still houses Chop Chop and a few others.

Besides, sometimes there’s an awful lot to be said for formica, tiles, smiles and equine artwork.

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